I have maybe reached the limits of what I can usefully say on the technicalities of hi-fi. Looking through various audio newsfeeds every day, including some ‘retro’ sites, it is clear that modern ‘high end’ hi-fi is increasingly coming to resemble that of the 1950s, or even earlier. Audio forums are dominated by such advanced topics as LP cleaning, turntable bearings, valve sockets and cotton-covered cables. There are endless ‘new’ turntables, valve amplifiers and horn speakers that all blur into one steaming pile of steampunk. It’s either that, or perpetual debate on how to convert one file format to another or which lossless codec sounds best(!). In other words, eight decades of audiophilia hasn’t settled anything, and just seems to be a load of pointless activity and argument for the sake of it. Nothing is ever allowed to be put to bed, and progress has stalled. Or maybe hi-fi has reached practical perfection and in order to maintain a sense of momentum there is nowhere left to go but backwards.
There are other hobbies with groups of enthusiasts who like to play about with vintage machinery, but in the case of hi-fi, the vintage stuff is now actually viewed as the cutting edge. Everything that has been developed in the last fifty-plus years is seen as a waste of time, money and effort, if not an actual crime.
I am increasingly coming to see hi-fi’s true high point as having been the 1970s. The technology wasn’t necessarily at its highest level, but belief in real progress and rationality was, and owning a hi-fi was still something quite special. The role of the audio system was at its most ‘pure’, and people were prepared to take up space in the living room with large speakers – the bigger the better. The gear could look fantastic. Your audio system and records said something about you, and it wasn’t “I like to listen for the differences between types of wire”.
As I recall, by the 1980s hi-fi had begun to lose that special combination of qualities that made it so seductive in the 70s. For most people it became just another cheaply-made device providing ‘entertainment’. Design in the 1980s could be awful too, and I don’t think there are many pieces of equipment from that time that are admired for their looks.
Looking at the physical form of my homebrew system, I can see how it could be converted into a rather refined and tasteful thing, ‘channeling’ the 1970s. It would have speakers that resemble KEF from the 70s – I have Ken Kessler’s ‘speaker porn’ book on KEF – or looking like Goodmans’ Dimension 8 or possibly the Cambridge R40/R50. A multi-channel amp and digital ‘core’ of some kind would be essential, and if I had to have visible boxes of electronics they would have the minimalism and restraint of Quad’s 306/34 – I have Kessler’s lavish book on Quad, too. And finally a means of controlling the system resembling Meridian’s Control 15, perhaps. And that would be it. I could happily live with it forever because I have reached the point where I know that you can’t get much better. Meridian have always known this too, and their speakers are the same but without the teak veneer. I am partial to a bit of teak veneer.
Arrays of modern glowing valves, giant horns, turntables with one foot thick platters? They have no class. They’re not tasteful. They’re not rational!
[I added a follow up here]